THE SANDWICH ENTERPRISE
Karen B. Hunter
From July through late August last summer, college freshman and Sandwich resident Benjamin A. Johnson could be found at the Sandwich and the Osterville farmers markets selling salsa, often running out of supply before the day was over.
Eight hundred jars later, Ben Johnson had sold enough salsa to pay for such college expenses as food and books when he returned to school in the fall.
Now a sophomore at Bryant University’s College of Business majoring in marketing, the 20-year-old was awarded the university’s Jackson W. Goss Prize in Entrepreneurship of $3,895, which will enable him to expand his homemade salsa business in the spring.
In addition to farmers markets, Ben Johnson will be able to sell his product online and at Cape Cod stores.
“I have always loved to cook,” Ben Johnson said. “Food brings people together, and salsa tastes good on anything and is a healthy snack,” he said. “This is what I would like to see my company do—bring people together.”
A love of cooking runs through the male line of Mr. Johnson’s family. His grandfather ran a restaurant in Taunton, where Ben’s father, Richard Johnson—who later became the mayor of Taunton—learned to cook.
“He still chops vegetables much faster than I can,” Ben Johnson said of his father, an avid gardener who grows vegetables at the family home on Oyster Hill Road in four rows of 30-foot-long raised beds.
One particularly abundant growing season a few years ago, when the Johnsons’ gardens produced more tomatoes than they could eat or give away, Richard Johnson decided to make salsa with them.
The result was a salsa so delicious that friends and family raved about it—a salsa so popular that it won the “Best Overall Salsa” award at the Cape Cod Beer Company’s salsa fest.
Entering college, Ben Johnson took a course called “Global Foundations of Business,” in which the first semester project challenged students to work in groups and come up with a business plan for a product or service.
His group used the assignment to work with the idea of creating a salsa business. The business plan earned his group an A, and the professor “loved the plan and loved the salsa itself,” Ben Johnson said.
After their salsa won the salsa contest, Ben Johnson’s parents told him, “This is real; the people have voted,” and they, too, encouraged him to go out on his own to create a business.
Using the product name My Fathah’s Salsa, which is now trademarked, Ben Johnson began his business with a residential kitchen license obtained through the town—which allowed him to sell his product directly to customers at farmers markets—and he and his father set up shop in the family kitchen.
“It’s quite an operation,” Ben Johnson said, explaining that one full day of work produces 60 to 65 jars of salsa.
On production days, which started at 7 AM, Ben Johnson began the day by picking up a wholesale order of tomatoes used to supplement those grown in the garden. Next, he cleaned and sanitized the cooking space and equipment.
He and his father then chopped ingredients and put them into the two food processors they ran simultaneously; from there everything went into four large pots for cooking
Without giving away any family secrets, Ben Johnson was willing to say that the “process” is what makes their salsa so “great.”
“How long we cook it is very important for the consistency,” which he calls a “thicker, heavier, stick-to-the-chips consistency” than is found in many store-bought salsas.
Three kinds of peppers are used to flavor the salsa, Ben Johnson said, which create a “tingle on the tongue.”
“It tastes sweet at first with a little bit of heat at the end, but not enough to compromise the taste,” he said. “It’s just the right amount of kick,” he said.
Funding from the entrepreneurship award will enable Ben Johnson to use a commercial kitchen at the Hope & Main incubator program in Warren, Rhode Island, to produce approximately 1,200 jars of salsa this spring.
The program offers a shared facility, education and support for food entrepreneurs, and will help Ben Johnson obtain a commercial license to sell his salsa in stores.
Ben Johnson plans to hire some of his friends every week or two—after they have taken an online food handlers’ course—to go with him to Rhode Island to help cook the salsa.
An unexpected piece of synchronicity and support came from Ben Johnson’s mother’s former University of Massachusetts at Amherst classmate, Stacy Madison. Ms. Madison started “Stacy’s Pita Chip Company” with her then-husband nine years ago.
Ms. Madison was able to offer Mr. Johnson some advice about starting a niche business.
“Stacy and I talked about the tempo of growing a small business into a large, successful, and profitable company,” he said. “Specifically, entering the market and being able to compare goals to what I have actually accomplished.”
The two entrepreneurs also discussed the value of “focusing on what you’re good at and not trying to put too many products on the market at once,” he said.
This summer, Ben Johnson would like to sell his salsa at 15 Cape Cod stores, such as Lambert’s Market in Sandwich and Hyannis, Fancy’s Market in Osterville, and the organic market at Mashpee Commons; and at three farmers markets, adding the Cape Cod Beer Company’s farmers market to his itinerary.
Initially selling only the medium strength salsa, which currently comes in 8-ounce and 16-ounce jars and is the most popular, Ben Johnson will eventually sell mild and spicy salsa as well.
His goal is to expand sales throughout New England, but move the salsa production back to Cape Cod, creating a local company that will employ Cape Codders. This is very important to me,” Ben Johnson said.
“This has all been very fun and exciting, and my friends are very supportive,” he said. “I have always wanted to work for myself,” he said, adding that the Bryant University grant “takes some of the stress and risk off my shoulders.”
Ben Johnson attended the Wing School in Sandwich and graduated from Saint John Paul High School in Hyannis.